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Dennis Dalton

MIRA AND THE MAHATMA
By Sudhir Kakar
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2004, pp. 267, Rs. 395.00


By Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004, Rs. 795.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 8 August 2005

As literature on Gandhi keeps pace with arguments for or against his current relevance or irrelevance (mostly the latter), there is some agreement on a recurring question: what were the sources of his power? From Gandhi’s own contemporary critics or comrades, sympathetic (Nehru) or not (M.N.Roy), to present day probes by analysts like Ashis Nandy, most writers about him are attracted to this persistent question.   The two books under review fortunately offer still more insights into this issue, though they are markedly different in their main subject-matter. Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie’s to me is a serious scholarly biography of her father, Manilal, Gandhi’s second son. Kakar’s study, though calling itself a “true story” (Author’s Note) because it draws extensively on actual correspondence, conceives of fictional constructs as well that he regards as true to the spirit of the tale. Happily, it reads like a good novel.   Pyarelal and Sushila Nayar, easily the most voluminous biographers of Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1958-1989, 10 vols., among their other writings on him), liked to assert that one had to know him intimately to comprehend his peculiar power. As his personal secretary and physician respectively, they could claim such knowledge. Yet, this criterion alone would, of course, disqualify most of us who have struggled to capture his charisma, e.g., Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph, Gandhi, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983, the best American attempt.   While neither of the two authors reviewed knew Gandhi personally, they both write about two people who surely did, a son and an English disciple. Both Manilal and Mira Behn (the name Gandhi gave to Madeleine Slade) not only spent many years living with Gandhi but they remained steadfastly committed to him and his teachings until their deaths. The present writer had the opportunity to examine this total commitment through personal interviews with Mira Behn and with relatives of Manilal. The encounter with the former suggests a notable flaw in Kakar’s final construction of her character, occurring in his ‘Epilogue’.   Perhaps Kakar intends his ‘Epilogue’ as only an imagined encounter with Mira Behn, but in any case it doesn’t ring true to his depiction of her throughout the book. Rather, it portrays her in the last years, living in Vienna, as somewhat of a crank, so “fiercely protective” of Gandhi’s reputation that she refuses to discuss him (pp.264-265). This is certainly ...


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